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Within less than a month into 2023, the horror genre is already thriving with studio hit M3GAN and viral indie phenomenon Skinamarink. Writer/director Robbie Banfitch’s The Outwaters is the best of the bunch, carving out its own slice of dread that is singular and terrifying. It metaphorically and literally leaves the viewer in the dark, using the primal fear of the unknown that lurks within to make your blood run cold.
Law enforcement successfully recovers memory cards in a remote expanse of the Mojave Desert. The footage captures four travelers named Robbie (Banfitch) and his brother, Scott (Scott Schamell), along with their friends, Ange (Angela Basolis) and Michelle (Michelle May). They suddenly disappeared while venturing on a sun-drenched camping trip that left only questions as to the events that took place.
Now, their footage is about to reveal a mind-bending trip that sent the group through unimaginable horrors. However, the revelations of their secrets may leave even more confusion, as the images within aren’t meant for human eyes to see or our minds to comprehend.
The discovery of The Outwaters‘ footage is set at the beginning of 2022, but the events take us back to Aug. 2017. Its initial evidence title cards and character introductions fall right into the typical found footage tropes that audiences have come to expect. Each member of the group prepares for their trip into the desolate Mojave Desert as a means to introduce the travelers, each of which begins their adventure with their own fears and insecurities that play into their greatest nightmares coming to life.
Banfitch only somewhat clues us in on the world of the protagonists, centering them within family turmoil. Robbie and Scott are brothers incurring family drama of their own, the latter of which refuses to visit their mother (Leslie Ann Banfitch). The pair briefly discuss their father, which mirrors Michelle’s grief over the loss of her mother. Banfitch’s screenplay never plays its hand, even keeping its cards close to its chest after the credits are done rolling. The audience is left to determine how it all fits together or doesn’t.
So, why are these four friends in the Mojave Desert to begin with? Michelle is recording a music video for a song that her mother once sang to her. Meanwhile, the rest of the travelers are providing their skillset to best capture it. However, earthquakes begin before they even reach the desert, and sudden vibrations running through the Earth have a part to play in the ominous environment. The longer that the group of friends exposes themselves to its harsh conditions, the more disoriented they become.
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Banfitch is a rare talent, offering his skills as a writer, director, actor, producer, cinematographer, editor, sound designer, and special effects artist. The found footage format implements plenty of shaky cam movement, but it takes full advantage of the Mojave Desert location. Banfitch puts care into much of his framing, especially his placement of the horizon that divides the deep blue skies from the earthy browns in the dirt. This duality also reads through his use of light and darkness, which further contort as their adventure plays out.
Horror fans will most obviously recall The Blair Witch Project for how The Outwaters incorporates its found footage format, as well as its missing protagonists, who only left behind this footage. However, Banfitch finds his own groove that chooses to place its emphasis on the characters’ descent into utter chaos. It’s madness worthy of H.P. Lovecraftian storytelling with a lingering and inescapable bleakness.
The Outwaters doesn’t shy away from shrouding its audience in total darkness. It’s frequently difficult to make out what’s taking place during the nighttime scenes, but they allow Banfitch’s distinct sound design to pop. It’s surprisingly effective, giving the feeling that you’re watching something that you shouldn’t, as the audio is horrifying enough.
Isolation and loneliness are surface-level themes here, as the film progressively becomes less of a narrative and more of an experience. There’s a constant change in meaning that perverts the story’s most innocent elements. Even Michelle’s lullaby takes on a new form, moving from beautiful and sentimental to eerie and bone-chilling.
The Outwaters dips its toes into the darkest depths of Hell, constructing an experimental approach to a tired sub-genre that’s perturbing and petrifying. It’s undeniably disorienting and a tad frustrating, but it’s simply impossible to turn away from this film’s pure nightmare fuel that permeates from every corner of its desert setting. Banfitch is one of the most fascinating new voices in the horror genre.
The Outwaters opens in theaters on Feb. 9 and will stream on Screambox after its theatrical run.
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